The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain: ‘It seemed like an outsider instrument’

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
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The ukulele is now taken seriously, thanks to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Duncan Seaman caught up with them ahead of their Yorkshire gigs.

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain formed 33 years ago with one simple aim.

“We said, ‘Why don’t we start a group where we’re not trying to make money out of it, where we’re not having the agents and the managers and the record companies dictating terms and it’s all a cult of personality and all about Spandex tights and stuff? Let’s just do something that’s a bit of fun’,” explains George Hinchliffe, who co-founded the Orchestra with Kitty Lux, Dave Bowie, Will Grove-White, Andy Astle and Jo Brindley in 1985.

“It was supposed to be the antidote to all the other musical projects that had got various problems like not enough money or arguments about the direction it was going to go in, various commercial entities trying to push you into things you didn’t want to do, and in fact because we were all relaxed about it and having a good time right from the very first gig in the local pub and the people who came to see us thought it was great so we said, ‘Maybe we should keep doing this’ and very quickly it became successful enough to be taken seriously.”

The line-up may have changed in the ensuing decades yet the Orchestra has gone on from strength to strength, performing at such famous venues as Carnegie Hall in New York, Sydney Opera House and the Royal Albert Hall as well as Glastonbury Festival and the BBC Proms.

At the same time the ukulele has gone from being seen as something of a novelty to being accepted as a proper musical instrument. “I don’t think the Hawaiian enthusiasts were so prevalent at the time,” says Sheffield-born Hinchliffe. “It seemed a bit like an outsider instrument to us. We chose it precisely because in England or Britain it didn’t have a tradition. In America I think they’re associated more with Hawaiian music, which is where the name comes from, but we thought it was completely left field, so given we were trying to get away from the limiting conventions of classical music and rock music – everyone thought they knew what a violin should sound like or what an electric guitar should be doing – we thought that would give us a completely new playing field to start out with.”

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

The Orchestra’s repertoire has always been eclectic, embracing everything from Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights and David Bowie’s Life on Mars? to the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK and AC/DC’s Highway to Hell. Humour has long been an important part of their act. Hinchliffe explains the joking began when transpositions for chords got mixed up on stage. “There was one particular number where it was a cacophony so we stopped to try to sort it out and some of us started having a bit of a chit-chat to fill in the time. We thought we’d better say something entertaining and try a few gags then we decided to keep that in.”

Their festive concerts tonight and tomorrow in Yorkshire will include “Christmas participation” from the audience. “We’ve got the music on our website which people can download and practice so they can join in singing and playing with us. We’ve got various tunes that we’re going to explore in a range of styles.”

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain play at Harrogate Royal Hall on December 21 and Leeds Town Hall on December 22. www.ukuleleorchestra.com

Given we were trying to get away from the limiting conventions of classical music and rock music we thought that would give us a completely new playing field to start out with.

George Hinchliffe